CARACAS, Venezuela A leading Human Rights Watch monitor who was abruptly put on the first plane leaving Venezuela early Friday said his expulsion shows the intolerance of President Hugo Chavez's government to criticism.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the rights group's longtime Americas director, told The Associated Press in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that "we were forcibly expelled from the country as if we were criminals."
"This the first time that this has happened to us in the hemisphere," said an exhausted Vivanco after arriving in Brazil with his deputy director Daniel Wilkinson, an American.
Both were expelled for what Chavez's government called "illegally meddling in the internal affairs" of Venezuela.
"We aren't going to tolerate any foreigner coming here to try to sully the dignity" of Venezuela, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro declared.
The two were forced onto the first flight out just hours after presenting a report by their New York-based group concluding that "discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature" of the Chavez presidency.
"What happened is a confirmation of exactly the points that we raised in the report, and it shows the lack of tolerance in the government of President Chavez to criticism of his record on any area," said Vivanco, a Chilean citizen.
He said Venezuela expelled him "to avoid dealing with the issues, and distract attention by attacking the messenger."
Chavez had threatened to expel foreigners who come to verbally "attack" his government; this was the first time he did so.
Chile called the action against one of its citizens regrettable. Deputy Foreign Minister Alberto Van Klaveren said Venezuela's reaction was "totally out of proportion" and that Vivanco has criticized the situation in Chile before something the government views as normal.
Vivanco said the two were met at their Caracas hotel after dinner Thursday by heavily armed policemen wearing camouflage.
Vivanco said he wasn't allowed into his hotel room; his bags had already been packed. He said he wasn't roughed up, though there was some shoving when a police officer took his BlackBerry phone. The Venezuelans later returned it but with the battery missing.
"They told us that we had offended Venezuela's sovereignty with statements that amounted to meddling in the internal affairs of Venezuela," Vivanco said.
They were shown on state television gathering the last of their belongings and being driven to the airport in a caravan complete with motorcycle escorts and flashing lights.
Vivanco said he didn't know where they were headed until they boarded the plane. After arriving in Sao Paulo, they retreated to a hotel to rest while making plans to fly back to the United States on Friday night.
Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra accused Human Rights Watch "of being intimately linked to efforts that have been uncovered to carry out a coup d'etat in Venezuela." He called it a "front organization" serving U.S. interests.
Maduro also accused Vivanco and Wilkinson of acting at the behest of the U.S. government and of receiving U.S. funding.
Human Rights Watch says it accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly. Vivanco has criticized governments of all stripes for example, he is a harsh critic of what he considers a conscious effort by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally, to suppress investigations of links between his political supporters and right-wing death squads.
Vivanco said Venezuela's government has regularly sought to label its critics "coup plotters paid by the (U.S.) empire," regardless of whether or not they actually were involved in any conspiracy.
Monica Fernandez of the group Venezuelan Penal Forum called Vivanco's expulsion "a decision that takes us further away from democratic principles."